The Today Show’s takedown of Your Baby Can Read ridiculously biased

Larry Sanger

This is a review of a review.  Last November 1, the Today Show did a segment about Your Baby Can Read, and that segment is now one of the top results for the Google searches for “your baby can read“.  Unlike most of the Today Show’s viewers, and apparently unlike Matt Lauer and his team, I actually know something about Your Baby Can Read and the baby reading phenomenon.  We used it with success and I’ve written a 140-page essay on our experience and the phenomenon in general.  I found the segment to be amazingly biased, and so I want to help set the record straight.

Here’s a blow-by-blow response.

0:32 “And that’s the promise: that if you buy this program, your baby, as young as three months old, can learn to read.”  Of course, nobody promises or believes that a three-month-old can read.  Three months is the age at which the program can begin to be used.

0:39 “This morning our Today investigation goes after the truth.”  Going after the truth involves allowing both (or all relevant) sides of an issue to be fully and fairly explored, within the time constraints.  That is not at all what the Today segment did.  It was very much one-sided, and quite unfair when explaining the other side.

1:29 “But she says it didn’t teach her daughter anything.”  Questions for Today and Ms. Torres: for how long did the little girl watch the show?  And what age is she now?  Do the Today Show and Ms. Torres realize that results aren’t (and aren’t supposed to be) instantaneous?

1:51 “[Interviewer:] Are those babies reading?  [Nonie Lesaux:] No.”  The expert goes on to explain that the babies have simply memorized words.  That’s true, but later, I gather from those who have reported about their use of the program, some users of this program are able to decode other words, a fact that the Today Show later mentions only to dismiss without a hearing.  This is unreasonable, just as it would be unreasonable to say of a five-year-old that she is “not reading” because she has merely memorized her first words.  She can say out loud those words, and will soon be reading many more; so she has taken her first steps in the process of learning to read.  This is also true of the kids who use YBCR (for long enough).  And what neither the expert nor the Today Show admit is that by the time they are out of babyhood, many former users of YBCR are reading quite well, thanks very much.

2:03 “In fact, we spoke with ten child development experts from the country’s top universities and organizations, and the message was universal: this isn’t reading, it’s just memorization.”  Has a single one of the experts that Today interviewed actually sat down with children whose parents claimed their 18-month-old was reading phonetically, i.e., could decode words they hadn’t seen before?  My guess is that the answer is “no.”

They wouldn’t want to, I guess, because doing so would upset their world view; so much of their reading research rests on the assumption that children aren’t “ready” to begin learning to read until age five or six.  The notion that children can actually decode, i.e., really sound out unfamiliar words or even read them fluently, is too outrageous to the experts.  But the fact of the matter is that many children who use YBCR and some other similar tools and methods can do this.  This fact has been known — to a few — since the 1960s if not before that.  Both these experts as well as the Today Show do society a great disservice by simply denying a fact that can be established quite easily.

It is a fact that some children who use YBCR and similar tools (but how many? That I admit I don’t know, and future studies should shed light on that) can and do decode new words while they are just one year old — many more are reading by age two.  This is not a matter of opinion, subject to theoretical debate.  The claim is clear enough, and either it’s true or it isn’t; and there is plenty of evidence that it is true.  Those experts do themselves and their institutions a disservice by either knowingly denying this fact or else being ignorant of it yet pretending to be able to speak on the question authoritatively.

2:23 “[Interviewer:] Is there any evidence that even learning to memorize, at a young age, makes you a better reader later?  [Karen Hopkins:] No evidence at all — that learning to memorize images of words can make you a better reader.”  I find the formulation of the claim here interesting: it is in terms of can, or what is possible.  Well, clearly it is possible that learning to memorize words at a young age makes a child a better reader later on, because some little memorizers are able to decode new words some months later.  So the answer to the interviewer’s question is: yes, there are plenty of instances where children who learned to memorize words at a young age soon became better readers later, because within months they were able to decode unfamiliar words.  But, of course, if you don’t know, or are willing to deny, that some toddlers can decode unfamiliar words, then you can rest undisturbed in your views about their capabilities.

2:33 “In fact, most experts say most children don’t even have the brain development to read until four or five years old.”  Yes, that’s what most experts say, and this is the theoretical situation that perhaps best explains why those experts are denying the phenomenon of phonetic decoding among toddlers: it’s not possible.  It couldn’t happen, certainly not on a mass scale and definitely not as a result of using some mere product.

How often do we see this in academe — where some experts deny facts that are staring them in the face simply because the facts don’t fit with their cherished assumptions?  Too often.

2:39 “[Maryanne Wolf:] I know not of one single study in which anyone says that children who learn to read before five do better later on. I’m a reading expert. I know not one single study.” I was delighted to receive an email from Dr. Wolf the other day, and she seems to be a nice lady, and I don’t want to offend her; but this remark is just incorrect, and if she simply thought about it, she would realize that it is.  As a reading expert, surely she knows that Dolores Durkin did some pioneering studies back in the 1950s and 60s, published in book form under the title Children Who Read Early: Two Longitudinal Studies, that showed that some children who learned to read before Kindergarten were still doing better than their peers, and in some cases increasing their advantage, by third grade and sixth grade.  There have in fact been quite a few studies of what are called precocious readers, and surely Dr. Wolf knows this.  The studies are almost unequivocal in support of the proposition that children who learn to read at the normal age do not catch up two, three, or even six years later with precocious readers, even controlling for intelligence and socioeconomic background.  There was an excellent review article of this research recently, “Precocious Readers: Past, Present, and Future,” which appeared in 2006 in the Journal for the Education of the Gifted.

Now, perhaps Dr. Wolf misspoke and what she meant to say was that she knew of not a single study in which anyone says that children who learn to read before age three do better academically later on.  Now that I would have to agree with.

But — and this is an important point — there have been no studies on that question at all. It is an open question.  So, no studies have established that other kids “catch up” later on, either.  The question has not been studied, period. But, given the precocious reader research, it’s reasonable to believe that those who are already reading at an advanced level by age 3 (i.e., the youngest of the precocious reader groups studied so far) will be even more advanced later on.  Why would you want to deny this, and so forcefully?

4:00 Interviewer lists the institutions that their criticals experts are affiliated with, then says: “they say your program is not only misleading, but it’s false. [Titzer:] Well, they’re all wrong. [Interviewer:] You’re saying they’re all wrong. [Titzer:] Yes, I’m saying they’re all wrong.”  Out of all the time Titzer was being taped, this is what they lead with?  First, the interviewer asks a nonsensical question: the program isn’t misleading or false, if anything it would be claims about the program’s effectiveness that would be misleading or false.  And when confronted with a vague, blanket declaration that his program is misleading and false, what is Dr. Titzer supposed to say? In short, this is unfair treatment.

4:28 “While he [Titzer] admits that it all starts as memorization, he says it leads to reading.”  Right.  And does the Today Show allow Dr. Titzer to bring on anyone to help establish that this is at least possible, that it has happened in a few cases at least?  No.  They don’t even do that.  And that omission is probably the most biasing flaw in the program.  It would have been easy for them to do; I heard, in fact, that they had someone lined up, and then the Today Show then pulled the plug on the interview.  But actually showing a child reading new words on-camera would have gone contrary to their whole line, and would directly show to be possible what the experts said was impossible.  That must be why they pulled the plug on the interview.

5:22 “But much of the research he cites for his program seems to be based on his own daughter using it.”   This is not just a low blow, it’s nonsensical — it’s poor writing.  Of course Dr. Titzer doesn’t cite any “research” that is “based on his own daughter”; unless I’m mistaken, there is no research per se that is based on his daughter using the program.  What the Today Show evidently meant to say, but did not, was that Dr. Titzer’s grounds for thinking the program works was merely that it worked with his own daughter.  If that is the point, it is still ridiculous on its face, because the program just got done saying that he could produce excellent customer satisfaction surveys.  In fact, Dr. Titzer has told me that his company has received “thousands” of communications from very satisfied customers, with parents reporting that their children had learned to read using the program.  So if the implication is that Dr. Titzer rests his claims about the effectiveness of the program just on his own daughter’s success with it, why wouldn’t they also say at least that he rests his claims on the success of the program with his customers?

What follows then are some accusatory claims and quotations from a deeply unsympathetic, “gotcha” interview with Dr. Titzer that amount to a blatant attempt to discredit him and assert that he is merely greedy and dishonest.  I really don’t have the patience to take this apart; it all rests on the assumption that YBCR does not work, which is a claim the Today Show makes simply based on the assertions of experts that it could not work, and without any examination of the many actual cases of small children who are decoding new words.

Near the end there comes this aside:

6:24 “Experts say this product can actually be harmful because it forces your baby to watch all those DVDs — too much TV time.  Matt, they say the best way to teach your kids is free: you just talk to them, you interact with them, you sing with them, you play with them, and they’ll learn just as well as they can, or better, than this program.”  What the Today Show does not say is that the programs are short, and that even if you follow Dr. Titzer’s advice, watching the program twice a day, that still adds up to something like 40 minutes.  (We watched just once a day, and not every day.)  Considering the amount of time that many kids unfortunately are exposed to television, that’s not much.  The claim here is also very tendentious in that it ignores that possibility that watching YBCR might actually cause your child to learn to read.  If it has that effect, then it is just false to say that talking, interacting, singing, and playing with your children will teach them as well the program can; no doubt children do learn a lot in those ways, but they don’t typically learn to read from those activities.  Besides, who can really, credibly claim that children who use YBCR and similar programs don’t play or talk with their parents?  The contrary suggestion is frankly ridiculous.

Saying the children are “forced”  is also misleading and wrong: like Glenn Doman, Dr. Titzer states very clearly that the program should not be shown to a resisting child.  If the child indicates he isn’t interested, then he shouldn’t be shown the program.  No forcing should be going on.  Speaking from our own experience, when my boy was watching the program for 3-4 months around his second birthday, he loved it to pieces and often demanded to see it.  No forcing there.

A lot of the points the Today Show brings up are discussed in great detail in my essay.  In Part 2, see:

  • Section 1 on whether it is possible to teach children to sound out new words at an early age.
  • Section 2 on reactions to the sales hype.
  • Section 5 on whether using methods like YBCR constitutes “pressuring” kids.
  • Section 7 on the too-much-video, too-early objection.
  • Section 8 on the claim that creative free play is superior to reading as a teaching method.
  • Section 12 on the question of whether early reading has long-term advantages.

See also Part 1, Section 4 for my own take on Your Baby Can Read, which is supportive, but not uncritically positive.

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